Election Amendment Act a popgun approach to tame political contributions Wild West

The Wild West is not exactly going to be the Mild West.

John Horgan is seeing to it. And Andrew Weaver is being paid to support it.

The political contributions law introduced by the BC NDP government takes toddler steps to deal with the cultural excesses that long ago lost the plot of appropriately financing election provincial and municipal campaigns.

If you assume that a lengthy term in opposition leads you to bold, virtuous behaviour in government, think again. The supposed medicine in the Election Amendment Act is dilute and the smarty-pants among us have by today figured out ways to avoid taking it.

The flawed weakness of the bill wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but the out-of-nowhere decision to wean the parties of private donations by switching them for at least five years to the public teat definitely was.

Without a whiff of warning – after six opposition bills earlier without a hint–the NDP in government has decided taxpayers now will provide subsidies to the parties in the form of per-vote funds. If the parties achieve a certain threshold, they can be reimbursed for half of their election expenses. No review of this scheme is coming for five years.

It is a found-money windfall for Weaver.  He hasn’t accepted these large donations, but now he gets to accept a large cheque from the government he’s supporting as if he had been – and perhaps reimbursement for half his party’s election expenses.

If Big Money is coming out of B.C. politics, for the time being Tax Money is going in – something Horgan never, ever discussed in the recent election race. It seems true, as Weaver put it, that the NDP campaign promises are now irrelevant.

Gone in this much-promised legislation is anything approaching a full-court press on the western world’s most generous, freewheeling political campaign financial liberties. If this is the subtlety with which the government thinks it will deftly handle matters of high finance, we are in trouble.

It is difficult to turn the clock back on well-heeled financial campaigns. But by any objective measure, the introduction of the campaign finance revisions was a splendid opportunity to introduce a new culture in this province about big-money dominance of the political landscape. Even many BC Liberals acknowledged the off-leash behaviour of the big dogs had messed the carpet.

Instead, what the NDP unfurled Monday was a veneer of measures whose surface can be easily scratched to reveal flaws – and watchdogs were quick to pounce.

Most shocking was the adjustment allowance to make the transition to a more frugal – but easy to defy – system of financing. Taxpayers will underwrite $27.5 million in subsidies over the next four years.

No question, there are matters to recommend in this bill: a ban on union and corporate donations, a ban on out-of-province donations, and a cap on third-party advertising, among others.

But the $1,200 annual personal donation limit is an open invitation to circumvention. Sighs of relief may now expel. The bad apples, and many well-intentioned and passionate ones, will be able to continue to channel funds through their colleagues, friends and families into the coffers.

There are measures to make cabinet minister fundraisers more transparent, but not measures to make one-on-one meetings more so. And the dark-money period between elections is hardly getting a scrub-down; that murky four-year stretch, in which machinery is built and messages defined, doesn’t come in for any scrutiny in the bill.

The happiest of campers must be Weaver, who probably couldn’t believe his good luck when he sat down to consult on the bill. It’s not like winning the lottery, it’s like determining the winning numbers.

The NDP say this last election was the last big money election. Unless they’re planning one quite soon, that’s untrue. The subsidies will make scheduled elections through 2022 plenty lavish, if compact-sized compared with what we just experienced.

Still, the bill will have enough seeming clout to appease those who do not dive into the weeds. The scofflaws will still have their way, but we will feel like we’ve done something. Politics can be rich that way.

And what of the 2018 municipal campaigns? Again, the NDP promised in the campaign that these new rules would capture the local elections. Will there be subsidies for parties there, too, and reimbursements? That would give the Vision and NPA parties in Vancouver millions of dollars without having to raise a cent, and reimbursements for having spent the tax dollars.

The Twitter hashtag Monday was an NDP pretension: #BanBigMoney. More appropriate: #BringTaxMoney.

The Wild West is now the Mild Messed.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.